Office small talk is part of business, too

I often speak with groups about the importance of being good at small talk, especially during business- ­related social situations with people outside the company. But small talk is important inside your company, too. Engaging in small talk at the office is part of building relationships, and learning the lay of the land in terms of who can be helpful to you and, frankly, whom you want to avoid.

Here are 10 pieces of advice to excel at small talk in the office:

Look for signals, don’t just start talking. If someone doesn’t seem receptive to a chat, back off.

Water-cooler conversations are an expected part of the day, especially during breaks or meals. Just remember, bring it to a close when it’s time to get back to work.


If another person approaches to join the conversation, be willing to include him or her. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, and think how you would like to be treated if you were trying to join.

Avoid private, personal conversations that you wouldn’t want a third party to overhear or join.

It’s OK to voice your opinion, but keep personal comments out of your discussion. “I can’t believe you would support such a cause!” or, “What on earth makes you think that?” are examples of inappropriate and combative responses. Instead think about a more tactful approach.

Stay informed about news, sports, entertainment, and issues in your area of business. That way, if these topics come up in conversation, you can contribute knowledgeably.

One of the best conversation gambits is to prepare by having a question or two ready ahead of time.

Anytime you ask another person for their opinion, you open the door to conversation. “I heard you’re an opera buff. What is so compelling about opera for you?” You’ve just given permission for that person to talk about a favorite topic, and he or she will.


Don’t be afraid to end a conversation, especially if it is eating into work time. “That was really interesting, we’ll have to talk again” is one way to gently end a conversation.

If it’s not a good time to talk, be honest and suggest an alternative time. “I have a report I’ve got to get finished. Can we touch base later?”

E-mail questions about business etiquette to ­etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com.